Tag Archives: Martin Luther King

Before and After ‘The Post’

Memories almost overwhelmed me in the cinema during the opening moments of the Stephen Spielberg film ‘The Post’, starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. The sound of Huey helicopters is synonymous with the Vietnam War, a helicopter war that ‘wop-wop-wop-wopped’ from our television screens in the 1960s. The ‘wop-wop-wop-wop’ was the background music to the images of young men pouring out of these choppers being ‘inserted’ into fields in Vietnam. The ‘wop-wop-wop-wop’ was the background music to young men now with old faces, haunted expressions and staring eyes climbing back into them to be evacuated to safety. It was the relentless background sound effect to the crouching running stretcher bearers loading up casualties. It was the dirge to which thousands of bloodied and broken dead bodies of young men, in the hitherto  unheard of ‘bodybags’, were loaded from battlefields and whisked away to be shipped home in boxes. ‘Wop-wop-wop-wop’.

And so the film began with the Hueys. ‘The Post’ tells the story of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, secret United States government reports of the political and military involvement in Vietnam that had gone on from 1945 to 1967. Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine, who had worked on the reports, decided that the public needed to know that the government had been misleading and lying to them for decades about the reality of the war. It was a war that they could not win, yet it was peddled as ‘holding back the tide of Communism’. In reality, tens of thousands of lives were lost or destroyed because the United States needed to ‘save face’. Ellsberg copied the secret report and gave it to the newspapers- The New York Times initially,  and when that newspaper was gagged by the Courts, the Washington Post continued the exposé. It is a fascinating story and well worth seeing.

It occurred to me that many of those viewing this film would not have any clue as to the extent of negative feeling about this conflict in far-off Asia. As I sat there I was reminded of those days and how I became involved in the world-wide protests and demonstrations of the 1960s and 1970s.

Roll back the clock a few years, to 1963. In August of that year I vividly recall walking into our kitchen at home and being rooted to the spot as Martin Luther King delivered his inspirational ‘I have a dream’ speech on TV. It was at this exact point in time that I became aware of what was not right with the world. In modern parlance we would say that I was ‘radicalized’. This was a time when African Americans were struggling for equal rights with their fellow white countrymen. News programmes were dominated by race riots and protests, with students and young people taking to the streets for a fairer society, often risking imprisonment or even serious injury.

It was difficult to avoid being ‘political’ in those days where everything was changing. Music had changed with the arrival of ‘pop’, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and of course Bob Dylan. Fashion had changed with the arrival of Mary Quant, mini skirts and Carnaby Street and there was now a television set in most homes adding a new dimension to world events.

As 16 year old pre-leaving certificate year students in an Irish convent school in 1965 we were allowed access to newspapers in order to prepare for our examinations. Every day there was coverage of the Vietnam War. I remember well seeing a headline along the lines of ‘Vietnam War Escalates’. Visuals and sounds were added by the news on the TV. It was shocking to see these young lads a few years older than ourselves being shipped out, and to see what could happen to them. I was always eager for the news the following day to see what was happening and followed all events closely. I was of course delighted that the Vietnam War came up on the English examination paper in 1966!

Image result for us involvement in vietnam war

Helping a wounded soldier to the medical facility. (Image Creative Commons)

I emigrated to England in 1966. My new work colleagues in the medical research laboratory were of a similar age and a political view was as important as being up to date with fashion and music. So we talked a lot about political and social issues, and of course the war in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, in 1967 Che Guevara, a young Argentinian revolutionary was executed by the United States in Bolivia. A major figure of the Cuban Revolution, his stylized image become a symbol of rebellion. With his image sellotaped to walls in millions of bedrooms, he inspired our generation. In 1968 Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, both iconic figures, were assassinated. There was a growing sense of social unrest as protests, mainly by students and young people spread across the globe. By this time there were a half million Americans in south east Asia.

Jim Fitzpatrick’s iconic image of Che Guevara. (Image Wikipedia)

Street demonstrations had a variety of themes, such as disapproval of nuclear weapons, Ban the Bomb marches, and the racism of Enoch Powell, but the hottest issue of the time was without doubt, the Vietnam War and specifically America’s involvement in it. All across the world protests were taking place – Italy, France, USA, Germany – in all  there were anti war demonstrations in 56 countries. The daily statistics at the time were astonishing as the death toll kept rising…American soldiers deaths shot up as the war intensified.

1964 216
1965 1,928
1966 6,350
1967 11,363
1968 16,899

I made my placard recording the number of dead young men – I think it was around the 12,000 mark – and headed off to my first demonstration at Trafalgar Square on St Patrick’s Day in 1968.  We were a happy group of young people – at 19, I was one of the youngest in our group of friends – delighted to be adding our voices to the outrage, and feeling very strongly that we were a force for good and that we could change things. After speeches we headed off chanting and marching to Grosvenor Square, where the United States Embassy was located. The police had placed a cordon around the building and prevented the crowd getting too near. Being towards the back of the crowd, we did not experience the violence that ensued with baton charges and mounted police charging into the crowd. Hundreds were arrested and many people were injured. The noise was incredible!  Martin Luther King was assassinated just weeks later in April, and in June of that year Robert Kennedy was also murdered.

In October 1968 the number of protesters on our demo had swelled to tens and tens of thousands – possibly 100,000 – and again we descended on Grosvenor Square. There were police everywhere, but the mood among the marchers was good as we chanted and sang our way along the streets.  We again stayed at the back, but the pushing and shoving was frightening, yet we chanted away adding to the noise, and looked out for one another. It was a most exhilarating experience to know that similar protests were taking place across the world.

While the reasons for being there were varied, and many groups were represented, our protests at the time were very much focused on the soldiers of our own age whose lives were laid waste and on the huge number of  innocent men women and children who were being killed and horribly maimed. Had we known at the time about the Pentagon Papers I wonder if we may have been out demonstrating more often and more forcefully?

The war raged on and although the number of casualties became fewer, more shocking images would stun us. Not least that of the little girl, 9 year old Kim Phúc,running screaming down a road having been set alight by a napalm bomb- a gel like substance that sticks to flesh and burns for at leasts 10 minutes.

Protests continued on campuses and cities across the world until finally the United States pulled out in 1975. And what if the reports in the Pentagon Papers had been known years earlier?  How many lives would not have been lost in vain? While the leaking of the papers had a huge impact on the relationship between the U.S. Government and the people of that country, the war rumbled on for more years afterwards. The contents were ‘declassified’ in 2011.

The statistics of the conflict (war was never declared) are horrible and will never be really known. It is estimated that between 1 million and 3 million Vietnamese died in the conflict, together with a further 400,000 Cambodians and Laotians. Hundreds of thousands were wounded.

the wall.JPGMany years later I stood at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. It is an astonishing sight.  Two 75 metre lengths of black marble are engraved with  58,318 names of the men who lost their lives in a war to uphold the ‘honour’ of a country. The average age of those whose names are here is 23.1 years.

And what if the reports in the Pentagon Papers had been known years earlier?  How many lives would not have been lost in vain? While the leaking of the papers had a huge impact on the relationship between the U.S. Government and the people of that country, the war rumbled on for more years afterwards. The contents were ‘declassified’ in 2011.

Vietnamese women and children in Mỹ Lai before being killed in the massacre, March 16, 1968.[62] They were killed seconds after the photo was taken.[63] Photo by Ronald L. Haeberlen (Wikipedia)

I look at these images of the wall with all those names and the faces of these lovely people about to die, and can’t help but wonder could they have been saved if we had protested earlier and more loudly.

The Pity of War.

References

The table of casualties is taken from the US National Archives at https://www.archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics

http://www.e-ir.info/2011/07/02/was-the-european-student-movement-of-the-1960s-a-global-phenomenon/

Statistics – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_War_casualties

 

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Filed under Ireland, Oral History

50 years of Blowin in the Wind

In May 2011 I wrote a post in celebration of Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday and the impact he had on me as a teenager. The original text can be seen here.  50 years ago today Bob Dylan first performed Blowin in the Wind. Then aged 15, I clearly recall the first time I heard it and how it fed into the worldwide social happenings of the world and stirred the conscience of a generation. Most particularly it provided a vehicle for our rebellious spirits. The original post is below.

Bob Dylan and his Harmonica in 1963. Image Guardian.co.uk

Being a teen in Ireland in the early 1960s was a fascinating time. The Irish television service had just been introduced in 1961, although those of us who lived near the border with the six counties of Northern Ireland had enjoyed the BBC for  several years before – all in black and white of course!

One of the abiding memories from my teens was at age 15, racing into the living room and being stopped in my tracks by Martin Luther King on the television, delivering his ‘I have a Dream’ speech, in Washington D.C. I was rooted to the spot. I also vividly recall the news reports of the war in Vietnam, the ‘FLOP-flop, FLOP-flop,FLOP-flop,FLOP-flop’ sound of Huey helicopters flying at terrifying angles and offloading their human cargoes of young men just a few years older than myself – either crouched and running,being carried on stretchers or in body bags. Never before had anything like these scenes been witnessed at a distance, by any generation. The impact on us was remarkable.

Dylan and Joan Baez. Civil Rights March Washington D.C 1963. Image wikipedia.com

Dylan and Joan Baez. Civil Rights March Washington D.C 1963. Image wikipedia.com

At the same time music was evolving, leaving behind the big band and orchestral sounds and becoming much more exciting and exhilarating. For a huge number of teenagers and young adults in the 1960s, Bob Dylan was phenomenal. With his guitar and harmonica and ‘drawl style’ of singing, he was unique. ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘The Times  they are a-Changin’ captured the mood exactly. They not only added an authenticity to the events, they challenged us not to remain complacent.

That Bob Dylan helped motivate an entire  generation to become socially aware, is probably an understatement.  Although he disliked the tag ‘protest song’, this is exactly what his compositions were to an emerging generation who were seeing things in their own homes that had only ever been read about in the past. His social commentaries were powerful motivators in making people question social inequality and the human cost of the Vietnam conflict. Not only that, his songs were like nothing we had heard before.  They had beautiful melodies, they were poetic, they had a social message. They were anthems of the time, most especially for the Civil Rights movement in the USA and for the anti-war movement, both of which, with the inspiration of Bob Dylan, became international movements.

For those of us emerging into adulthood in the sixties, Bob Dylan was a true icon. His poetry was inspiring; his message was beyond love-songs, beyond ‘ be-bop-a-doo-dah’ banality. His place in the politics, history and culture of the 1960s  enabled us to admonish those who perpetrated injustices in a way that had not been seen before and  not has been seen since.

How many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man?….. How many times must the cannonballs fly, before they are forever banned?…

How many years can some people exist, before they’re allowed to be free?… How many ears must one man have, before he can hear people cry?

How many deaths will it take till he knows  that too many people have died? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind

The answer is blowing in the wind.

Blowin still 50 years on.  Bob Dylan –  you changed me…you changed the world !

 

Filed under Life in the 1960sLiving in IrelandSocial Change

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Filed under Life in the 1960s, Living in Ireland, My Oral History, Social Change, Social History Ireland

Martin Luther King in a Donegal living room

Stone of Hope Memorial

Stone of Hope Memorial to Martin Luther King, Washington D.C.

In August 1963, when I was 15 years of age, I was running to do something in the kitchen. (We tended to run in those days instead of walking!) Passing by the open living room door where my father was watching the news on television, I was stopped dead in my tracks by the rousing words ‘I.. HAVE… A DREAM ‘.I was aware that there were ongoing civil rights issues in the USA at that time, and the name Martin Luther King was familiar. I had not however ever heard him speak before and I was riveted to the spot.

mlk

Martin Luther King Jnr at the Civil Rights Demonstration in Washington DC on August 28 1963

This was Martin Luther King, the voice of Black America, delivering a speech in which the spoken word became a servant of his cause. It was beamed across the world and affected the lives on many of the millions who watched, including myself, a teenager in County Donegal, Ireland.

It has been revealed in a book, Behind the Dream, by Clarence Jones, a close associate of King,  that when he was delivering the speech a singer who had performed earlier in the programme called out ‘tell them about the dream Martin, tell them about the dream.’  King put his speech to one side and so the ‘I have a dream’ part of this speech was not scripted, but was delivered spontaneously  and from the heart with raw emotion.

Martin Luther King was  assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee  on this day 45 years ago,  April 4, 1968. He was 39 years old. His messages of justice and equality, his rhetoric and his inspiration live on, resonating across the decades.  He delivered many memorable speeches, but it is ‘I have a Dream‘ that made him a household name across the world.

MLk memorial

One of the inscriptions on the wall at the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington D.C. These words are from his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964

This is the full text  of ‘I have a Dream‘ delivered at the march on Washington, DC, August 28, 1963.

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

References:

http://www.nobelprize.org

http://www.nps.gov (Memorial Pictures)

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Filed under Life in the 1960s, Oral History, Public Speaking, Social Change, Social Justice

Bob Dylan – Blowing in the Wind of the 1960s

Bob Dylan and his harmonica 1963. Image from Guardian.co.uk

Being a teen in Ireland in the early 1960s was a fascinating time. The Irish television service had just been introduced in 1961, although those of us who lived near the border with the six counties of Northern Ireland had enjoyed the BBC for  several years before – all in black and white of course!

One of the abiding memories from my teens was at age 15, racing into the living room and being stopped in my tracks by Martin Luther King on the television, delivering his ‘I have a Dream’ speech, in Washington D.C. I was rooted to the spot. I also vividly recall the news reports of the war in Vietnam, the ‘FLOP-flop, FLOP-flop,FLOP-flop,FLOP-flop’ sound of Huey helicopters flying at terrifying angles and offloading their human cargoes of young men just a few years older than myself – either crouched and running,being carried on stretchers or in body bags. Never before had anything like these scenes been witnessed at a distance, by any generation. The impact on us was remarkable.

Dylan and Joan Baez. Civil Rights March Washington D.C 1963. Image wikipedia.com

At the same time music was evolving, leaving behind the big band and orchestral sounds and becoming much more exciting and exhilarating. For a huge number of teenagers and young adults in the 1960s, Bob Dylan was phenomenal. With his guitar and harmonica and ‘drawl style’ of singing, he was unique. ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘The Times  they are a-Changin’ captured the mood exactly. They not only added an authenticity to the events, they challenged us not to remain complacent.

That Bob Dylan helped motivate an entire  generation to become socially aware, is probably an understatement.  Although he disliked the tag ‘protest song’, this is exactly what his compositions were to an emerging generation who were seeing things in their own homes that had only ever been read about in the past. His social commentaries were powerful motivators in making people question social inequality and the human cost of the Vietnam conflict. Not only that, his songs were like nothing we had heard before.  They had beautiful melodies, they were poetic, they had a social message. They were anthems of the time, most especially for the Civil Rights movement in the USA and for the anti-war movement, both of which, with the inspiration of Bob Dylan, became international movements.

For those of us emerging into adulthood in the sixties, Bob Dylan was a true icon. His poetry was inspiring; his message was beyond love-songs, beyond ‘ be-bop-a-doo-dah’ banality. His place in the politics, history and culture of the 1960s  enabled us to admonish those who perpetrated injustices in a way that had not been seen before and  not has been seen since.

How many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man?….. How many times must the cannonballs fly, before they are forever banned?…

How many years can some people exist, before they’re allowed to be free?… How many ears must one man have, before he can hear people cry?

How many deaths will it take till he knows  that too many people have died? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind

The answer is blowing in the wind.

Happy birthday, Bob Dylan –  you changed me…you changed the world !

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Filed under Life in the 1960s, Living in Ireland, Social Change